Commons debate shows nasty times are here again

The House has slumped into same kind of meanness as it did before last election

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The Gazette, Friday, May 19, 2006

Only in Ottawa would a television in a crowded bar be tuned to a vote in the House of Commons rather than the hockey playoffs. Only in Ottawa would the outcome, 149-145 in favour of extending the Afghan mission for two years, be cheered like the winning goal in the Stanley Cup finals.

But that was the noisy, jostling scene Wednesday night at the Martini Ranch of Hy's, the favoured watering hole of the political class. "Yeah, pretty pathetic," observed one of the locals, who was quick to add in his post-game analysis that if half a dozen absent Liberals had shown up to vote against the government motion, it would have gone the other way.

The rest of the country was watching Canada's team, the Edmonton Oilers, move through to the semi-finals. Only in Ottawa was it noted that Paul Martin, who sent Canadian troops from Kabul to Kandahar, didn't suit up for the vote. Only in Ottawa would fans note with distaste that John McCallum, himself a former defence minister, voted against a mission he had once led.

As for the 24 Liberals who gave the Conservatives a razor-thin margin in the House, they were led by another former defence minister, Bill Graham, who approved the more dangerous mission in southern Afghanistan last summer. And they very much included Michael Ignatieff, a Liberal leadership front-runner, who has written about Afghanistan and the war on terror from his former post at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Ignatieff's leadership bid is supported by about 20 Liberal MPs, and a dozen of them stood with him on the vote.

But the fact remains three-quarters of the Liberal caucus opposed extending a mission that their former government changed less than a year ago. Among those voting against were former ministers Ken Dryden and Belinda Stronach, who would have voted for it in cabinet.

The Liberals and the NDP were quick to complain that they weren't opposed to the mission, but to the one-day parliamentary process of a debate and vote being held on a single day. But all parties had agreed to the process on Monday, or the resolution and vote wouldn't have been held at all. The Bloc Quebecois and the NDP were unanimous in their opposition to what Jack Layton now calls "the war," while the Liberals permitted a free vote of a caucus that was deeply divided on the issue. The Bloc will not be troubled in Quebec by its vote, but Layton will have some explaining to do among blue-collar voters, who were talking about it over coffee yesterday at Tim Hortons.

The vote was non-binding, and not a question of confidence, so the government would not have fallen on a defeat. But it would have been a serious blow to the Harper government on the world stage, and would have sent a message of non-support to 2,200 Canadian troops in Afghanistan on the same day Canada lost its first ever woman in combat, Capt. Nichola Goddard.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper might have made the vote closer than it would have been by the brinksmanship of his speech on the resolution, in which he said in the event of a defeat, the government would unilaterally extend the mission by one way year anyway. The Liberals were plainly annoyed by this, as they already felt squeezed enough.

The vote came on the Harper government's 100th day in office, during a week in which the mood of this minority House deteriorated for the the first time into the kind of rancour and recrimination that suggest an election might come sooner rather than later.

On Tuesday, the opposition ganged up in committee to defeat Harper's nomination of Gwyn Morgan to head the appointments commission in the Prime Minister's Office, a job the former Encana CEO, an expert on corporate governance, was going to undertake for a dollar a year. But he had been a fundraiser for Harper, hardly an onerous task in the oil patch, and had made some politically incorrect comments about Jamaican street gangs in Toronto and Asians in Calgary.

That make his cause a bit awkward, but having given Harper a bit of comeuppance, the opposition parties were stunned when the PM abandoned the idea of an appointments commission to overhaul patronage nominations, saying they would now be made in the traditional way.

This place has turned nasty again. It's a good thing it has next week off.

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